Reality TV sunk to a new low when traumatized Missouri teen Shawn Hornbeck appeared with his family on the January 18 edition of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” only days after being freed from monstrous captivity. This tawdry spectacle is the latest in a long line of media horrors that gnaws at the foundations of American society.
Shawn was 11 years old when he was kidnapped, and he was reportedly held at gunpoint for 51 months. He’s now 15. The suspect in the abduction, 41-year-old Michael Devlin, a hulking, bearded, 300-pound schlub of a man, is being held on $1 million bond. Police fortuitously found Shawn at Devlin’s house on January 12 while searching for 13-year-old Ben Ownby, who had been snatched four days earlier.
There are two major problems with the “Oprah” interview. The first is that it may harm the psychological well-being of this poor boy.
A number of prominent media pundits have said that if they had been given the same opportunity, they, too, would have interviewed Shawn. I would not.
In 1981, I was a student reporter at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvannia when the American hostages were released after 444 days of captivity in Iran. About a month later, a list of the freed captives was published in a local newspaper. I decided to contact one of them, Sam Gillette, a military intelligence officer in his mid-20s who lived nearby.
During a brief telephone conversation with Mr. Gillette, I invited him for an interview on the campus radio station. He replied that he was in no condition for it at the time but would get back to me in future. I respected his privacy and initiated no further contact. A couple of months later, he called me, and, within a few days, we had an excellent on-air conversation.
If a 20-something military intelligence officer was in no shape to do an interview with a small college radio station a month after his ordeal, 15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck couldn’t possibly have been ready for national television after six days of freedom.
People do all sorts of things for which they are ill-prepared, and the results can be devastating. Danny DeVito went on “The View” bombed out of his mind. Untrained contestants have made fools of themselves on “American Idol”. Howard “The Scream” Dean made a fool of himself and lost a Presidential nomination. These instances pale before that of Shawn Hornbeck, who was emotionally, and probably sexually, tortured by a maniac for over four years.
DeVito, the “Idol” contestants, and Dean are adults. They knew, or should have known, what they were doing. Shawn Hornbeck, by contrast, is a minor and a victim of a very serious crime. And, because he’s a minor, the ultimate decision to “go public” rested with his parents.
The second problem with the “Oprah” interview is that it may compromise Devlin’s prosecution. Ms. Winfrey was eliciting evidence from the family, including allegations of abuse. This case is in early and delicate stages of the legal process. At the time of the “Oprah” interview, Devlin had just been arraigned. Now every potential juror in Missouri has heard Shawn’s parents say that their son has been sexually abused, and Devlin’s lawyers will argue that their client can’t get a fair trial.
These are issues for prosecutors and psychiatrists to privately explore. They should not be fodder for a billionaire talk show host whose primary concern is the financial health of her media chain.
During the interview, Shawn looked stiff and nervous. He answered Ms. Winfrey’s questions in a soft, shy voice, furtively glancing at his mother for support. His parents, Craig and Pam Akers, said that Shawn had not spoken to them about his ordeal.
Nice going, Mr. and Mrs. Akers. The kid won’t talk to you, so you trot him out with fresh emotional wounds on “Oprah”, of all places, and run the risk of re-traumatizing him for 15 minutes of fame. I hope Oprah paid you a boatload of moulah, but no amount of money will ever compensate for your son’s lost innocence.
Why the hell couldn’t the parents have waited until Shawn received proper treatment and the legal process had run its course? In six months or a year, the media interview, the book deal, and the movie offer would still have been there.
To their great credit, Mr. and Mrs. Ownby, who also appeared on the show, refused to allow Ben to participate in this hideous circus.
Oprah Winfrey is the world’s infotainment queen, beloved by millions. As the New York Post’s Linda Stasi wryly observed in a January 19, 2007 column, the parents “might have turned down a first interview with God if he’d asked, but who can say “no” to Oprah?”
Popularity is a poor measure of character. Oprah Winfrey is no angel.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the Hornbeck horror because Ms. Winfrey has often aired dirty laundry in public. In addition to having the obligatory cheating spouses on her program, she engaged in an awful spectacle about a decade ago when, in full throttle tears, she revealed on camera that she had been abused as a child.
A few years ago, Ms. Winfrey vigorously defended her author-fabricator guest James Frey on “Larry King” after Frey had been discredited. Two weeks later, she announced that she had changed her mind and proceeded to excoriate Frey when he appeared for a second time on her show.
Oprah Winfrey is an exceptionally savvy woman who owns of one of the biggest media empires in the world. The suggestion that it took her two weeks to determine that Frey deserved condemnation was an insult to the intelligence of every American. Oprah’s about-face was driven by a change in her public image, not her personal opinion.
Ms. Winfrey has effectively muzzled most of her criticics. Her company, Harpo Productions, is aptly named after the late pantomimic comedian Harpo Marx. Employees of Harpo Productions must sign a confidentiality agreement prohibiting them from ever discussing Oprah with the outside world.
Oprah got a court order preventing a former underling from writing a book, a ruling which was upheld without explanation on appeal. So much for the First Amendment and the judicial disdain for prior restraint.
Corporations routinely require their employees to execute agreements preventing them from divulging trade secrets or using inside information for personal gain, but these contracts operate for a limited time. Only CIA and similarly sensitive positions demand lifetime bans of the Harpo Productions variety.
Do Harpo Productions employees chase after and whistle at each other? We’ll never know.
I wonder what Ms. Winfrey has to hide. Even Harpo talked in public before he died.
Maybe Oprah’s more powerful than the CIA. Or the President. Or the entire United States government.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications calls Ms. Winfrey’s show “public therapy”. See http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/W/htmlW/winfreyopra/winfreyopra.htm. This is a very dangerous concept. The notion that someone with serious emotional difficulties can be cured by going on “Oprah” is like a person with cancer who thinks he can become healthy by drinking a bottle of snake oil. Therapy is best left to medical professionals, not talk show hosts.
But Oprah is merely the most prominent symptom of a much broader problem. The tawdry spectacle is as American as apple pie, but it has gotten out of control in recent years and needs to be restrained.
The current state of media depravity has deep cultural roots. It was first suggested by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in the 1820s and wrote about his sojourn in a ponderous tome called “Democracy In America”. While de Tocqueville largely admired Americans, he made remarkably modern observations about their short attention spans, insatiable curiosity, and inconsiderate behavior.
We’re all familiar with the nineteenth century ringmaster Phineas T. Barnum who founded “The Greatest Show On Earth” and opined that “there’s a sucker born every minute.” The sleazy talk shows that began appearing in the late 1980s are malignant descendants of the benign carnival barkers and fun houses of yore.
Barnum’s adage is largely true, but the “sucker” is often aware of the gag and wants to be fooled. That’s why magic shows are so popular. We may not know exactly how the trick is done, but we’re sure that the magician doesn’t have mystical powers. We just want to be entertained.
That’s fine. I like a good time as much as the next guy, as long as nobody gets hurt.
But in the late 1980s, a sea change in American culture went far beyond the taste for gossip and brashness of previous generations. People started getting physically hurt on television programs like “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show”. Volatile guests explosively clashed. In an infamous installment of Mr. Downey’s program, CORE chairman Roy Innis’s choking of a Klansman produced an on-air riot.
These abominations reached their logical conclusion in March 1995 during a taping of “The Jenny Jones Show” in which participants revealed secret crushes. The case is described in detail online in a May 8, 1999 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article.
Jonathan Schmitz, a self-described heterosexual and diagnosed manic-depressive, became enraged when a gay man, Scott Amedure, revealed on camera that he was sexually attracted to Schmitz. Three days later, Schmitz shot Amedure to death at his home. A wrongful death suit resulted in a $25 million judgment against the show and its producer, Warner Brothers. The episode never aired in its entirety, but relevant clips were widely broadcast after the fatal shooting.
The verdict was overturned by a Michigan appeals court which said that the show’s producers weren’t responsible for a guest’s safety after he had left their studio. But poetic justice triumphed in 2002 when “Jenny Jones” was canceled due to poor ratings.
If, God forbid, Shawn were to suffer injury in some way as a result of his appearance on “Oprah”, neither Ms. Winfrey nor her show would be legally responsible, according to the “Jenny Jones” ruling. But that doesn’t let Ms. Winfrey off the moral hook.
Jenny Jones and Morton Downey, Jr. are gone, but, sadly, their legacy of grotesque media events lives on. Examples abound: the Miss USA debacle; Britney, Paris, and Lindsay; Trump versus Rosie; videos of teen beatings on YouTube.
And it’s a sad day for professional journalism when every major news organization in America has to get its top story from an Oprah Winfrey broadcast.
What should we make of this boiling pot of manure, other than the obvious fact that it stinks to high heaven?
The first thing we need to do is stop dumping in it. Freedom of speech demands responsible self-restraint. Otherwise, there will be undesirable government intervention, as evidenced by the FCC fines levied after the Janet Jackson breast-bearing extravaganza.
Many subjects are appropriate for public forums. Some should remain private. We blur the two categories at our peril.
Oprah had a right to invite Shawn and his parents on her program, and they had a right to accept that invitation. But having a right is very different from being right.
Any sane person would be disgusted by someone defecating on live television, yet a far more dangerous voyeurism has become ingrained in American culture. This madness will only end when we stop showering media proctologists with our money and attention. How many lives need to be ruined–or lost–before we, as a people, flip the dial?